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Leaving Cert 2021: Heaney brings smiles to students faces on English Paper 2

Seamus Heaney is always welcome on a Leaving Cert English Paper 2, and the poet didn’t disappoint this year.

Everyone was eagerly awaiting question on Heaney, he hadn’t been on for a while. I would say students were delighted, and also delighted with the question itself, which centred around his use of imagery to transform the familiar and mundane,” said teacher Ursula O’Connor.

Another popular poet who came up was Paul Durcan, but Ms O’Connor a Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) subject representative said it was “very specific question”.

It referred to his use of tone and mood, and “there was no opportunity to discuss the narrative elements that make him popular with students”.

Usually time management is a big issue with this paper, but this year, with fewer questions to answer and more choice, students “were much more relaxed before they went in. They had time to think about their answers, rather than being worried about getting finished,” she said.

Paul McCormack, a teacher at the Institute of Education, Dublin, agreed that “the Heaney question was also lovely” but that Durcan was “ a little more challenging”.

All three Irish poets featured, and he described the Eavan Boland question as “a great option, as it asked about how the narrative elements employed in her poetry help her communicate her themes”. Sylvia Plath and John Keats should have presented no significant difficulties to candidates who wanted to answer these, he added.

Kate Barry an Association of Secondary Teachers’ Ireland (ASTI) subject representative , agreed that it was “great to see Heaney” and a question that was a “very good characterisation of his poetry”.

Students also had answer questions on an unseen poem, Louise Greig’s How to Construct an Albatross. Ms Barry was taken with a question, about the impact of no punctuation mark at the end, which gave students an opportunity “ to apply what they have learned.

After a difficult year for students, Mr McCormack described the paper overall as a “welcome shelter from the storm”. Changes to the exam meant that students did not have to answer all three sections but could select the most appealing questions from any two of the three areas of study.

For the first time ever, Shakespeare was optional, but for those who did it, it was challenging, said Ms O’Connor, who teaches at Mulroy College, Milford, Co Donegal.

One question was on a proposed production of the play in which the characters of Kent and The Fool , did not appear in King Lear and to discuss how this would or would not diminish the play. That would would be challenging, she said.

Mr McCormack described the two King Lear questions as “ beautiful and subtle”, although students “were challenged to think carefully and use their argumentative writing skills effectively”.

He said the first, which asked students to comment on ‘chaos and confusion’ in the play, was “a brilliant question that required real thought and inventive thinking ”, while the second, on the role and importance of The Fool and Kent, “was framed in a clever way”.

Ms Barry thought that while the “chaos and confusion” question was fine for The Tempest, the other Shakespeare option, it was “for the more able” King Lear students. “The chaos and confusion in King Lear is quite subtle and if a less able candidate went for it, they might have struggled,”

Ms Barry of Loreto Secondary School, Fermoy, Co Cork, liked the question on Kent and The Fool which “was asked in such a way that the candidates had to take material they have learned and memorised, but marshall it in support of an argument”.

In the Comparative section, Mr McCormack said all three modes contained questions which were “once again designed to award original thinking and mitigated against rote learning.”

Ms Barry and Mr McCormack both welcomed the significant change in format in this section as part of thadjustments for 2021.

Ms O’Connor said students were very happy with the Ordinary Level paper, which was “very accessible in terms both of questions and the language.

Ms Barry said she would like to see a continuation of some changes introduced at Ordinary Level continued. She referenced the Single Text question where, this year, students could pick two of four questions, instead of having one compulsory.

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